Tate Britain, London, United Kingdom
From: 22 November 2011
Until: 6 May 2012
BP British Art Displays: Rubens in Britain
Saturday - Thursday: 10am until 6pm
Fridays: 10am until 10pm
If asked to name one 17th-century Flemish master who came to Britain to paint for Charles I, few of us would think beyond van Dyck. A new exhibition at the Tate Britain, though, considers the lesser-known links that his mentor, Rubens, had with this country.
It focuses on the nine frescoes Rubens painted for the king’s ceiling at Banqueting House in the early 1630s. Also worthy of mention, however, is the painter’s first brush with Britain: his intriguing relations in the previous decade with George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham - Charles I’s reckless right-hand man.
The vain and widely-loathed Buckingham was the king’s personal favourite, wielding immense power at court. He was appointed General of the Fleet and Navy in 1625, the same year he was to lead the disastrous Cadiz Expedition against Spain and also meet Rubens in Paris. The latter was there delivering a set of canvases for the dowager queen of France, Maria de’ Médicis, while the Duke had come to escort her daughter, Henrietta Maria, to England as Charles’s bride.
Buckingham’s wildcat approach to foreign policy veered from attempted alliance with Spain against France one day, to attempted alliance with France against Spain the next - such that, by 1627, Britain found itself at war with both.
Rubens utterly mistrusted the Duke, explaining in one letter to a friend: "When I consider the caprice and arrogance of Buckingham, I pity the young king, who has thrown himself and his kingdom deeply into peril."
The shrewd Rubens, though, never expressed such feelings to Buckingham’s face. The pair remained in constant contact, and he needed to keep the latter sweet: first, because the extravagant Duke was prepared to splash out 84,000 florins on his antiquities collection; and second, because Rubens wasn’t simply a painter, he was also a top-dollar diplomat in the service of Spain - with an overriding aim of peace for his homeland, the Spanish Netherlands.
To that end, playing on Buckingham’s vanity, Rubens painted various flattering pictures of him: most notably, a (now-lost) ceiling painting of his apotheosis, for York House, the Duke’s property on the Strand. In The Apotheosis of the Duke of Buckingham, a triumphant Villiers is divinely transported heavenward - he’s offered a wreathed crown, and the allegorical figures of Honour and Virtue await him outside a fine, marble temple.
What ostensibly was a simple artist-patron relationship was actually the meeting of two of Europe’s most influential men. As one painted the other, the future of the continent was, in many ways, at stake.
It’s hard to say, though, what impact Rubens’s wheedling may have had on Buckingham’s policies, as very soon the latter was dead. To public and parliamentary delight, the Duke was assassinated by a disgruntled army lieutenant in Portsmouth in 1628.
Rubens the artist, then, had proved far less prophetic and honest than Rubens the correspondent. Buckingham wasn’t to achieve Honour and Virtue; he was instead, as observed by the Belgian in a letter of 1626, “heading for a most precipitous fall".